Elements 2009 An ETs View of MSW Management
Every year at this time we produce Elements, a macro view of the waste management opportunities and challenges for the months and years ahead. It’s always been my favorite issue, but this time it’s something particularly special since all but one of the feature articles (An Office Campus That Diverts 2500 Tons of Waste a Year, by Charles Bader) has been authored by members of SWANA’s Technical Divisions. Within these Technical Divisions reside the corporate knowledge and initiative that are the backbone of the Association’s contribution to the field it serves and are, to my way of thinking, the most compelling reason why, if you don’t belong to SWANA, you should.
Waste Diversion: Time to Burn the Barricades?
This past May, the United States Supreme Court affirmed the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit’s ruling in the case of United Haulers Association Inc. Et Al. v. Oneida-Herkimer Solid Waste Management Authority Et Al (Herkimer), upholding the counties’ flow-control ordinances, which treat in-state private business interests exactly the same as out-of-state ones and do not discriminate against interstate commerce.
In my July/August 2008 Editor’s Comments entitled Opportunity Knocks Twice: A Time for Partnerships, I opined:
In the eyes of many, Herkimer effectively allows public entities to bypass the Commerce Clause issue that formed the basis of the landmark 1994 flow-control decision in C&A Carbone Inc. v. Clarkstown, 511 U.S. 383, in which the Court held that an ordinance forcing haulers to deliver waste to a particular private facility discriminated against interstate commerce. In Herkimer, the Court concluded that “... waste disposal is both typically and traditionally a local government function” and that “the ordinances give the Counties a convenient and effective way to finance their integrated package of waste disposal services.”
This, I concluded, was a public-sector opportunity not without consequences.
A phrase heard more than once in Atlanta [WasteExpo 2007] was “payback time,” unmistakably a suggestion that the preceding period deserved a dose of retributive justice. While I’d like to think that this falls into the category of bigmouth blather, its potential for mischief cannot be dismissed out of hand.
And I have additional fears, including the thought that local politicians may see in Herkimer the makings of a cash cow that can be used to address general-fund issues rather than those having to do principally with waste.
Scarier still is the prospect that the authors of such programs might be public-sector wannabe entrepreneurs seizing a seemingly riskless opportunity to preempt traditional free-enterprise activities.
Scariest of all, however, is a let’s-jump-into-it-and-see-what-happens reaction on the part of ill-prepared public servants feeling the call to do something with no cogent plan in mind ... a recipe for catastrophe.
It is my belief now, as then, that the Court’s decision presented us with a golden opportunity to move ISWM programs forward, but the largest obstacle we have—in Pogo’s enduring definition of the Enemy—is us. If we continue along the parochial lines that have characterized the past decade and a half, we will isolate ourselves from playing an effective role in meeting the energy and materials management challenges that confront us in a world well on its way to bypassing our outmoded institutions and practices and leaving us in the dust.
Opportunities and Pitfalls
While the Herkimer decision seems to open the door to innovation in waste management approaches, I wonder how long it will take for any change to occur. For perspective, I’d like to direct your attention to my Editor’s Comments from our Elements 2002 issue to point out how resistant to substantive change the waste industry is. Allow me to lift a couple of thoughts from the piece to illustrate my point:
Proponents of traditional recycling programs—around which significant infrastructure and institutional gravity has developed—fear that new diversion programs might compete (unfairly they insist) for feedstock heretofore destined for their coffers. In a free market for waste materials, their fear is justified since their programs are able to thrive by skimming the cream of recyclables off the top while turning a blind eye to the bulk of materials proceeding without further interference for disposal. Thus, it is no surprise that institutional recycling interests have turned to governmental entities for protection. Effectively blocked from free access to feedstocks, purveyors of nontraditional recycling technologies—forced to refer to their processes by such uninspiring terms as “conversion” or “transformation” technologies—find themselves cast in the role of predators seeking to undermine recycling efforts. The question for us is whether we can afford not to interdict the heavy flow of materials presently headed for disposal.
In many areas of the country we’ve gone past the tipping point in our ability to manage materials effectively and efficiently in traditional ways. The fiscal, environmental, and societal costs involved in present-day diversion and disposal practices cannot be justified on the basis of their benefits.
Local and regional governments will soon have to tackle the traffic congestion issue, and waste activities will be easy targets. For some the response will be rail haul, particularly where regional landfills are sited or planned. For others, the answer might lie in increased processing and conversion activities at MRFs coupled with other facilities such as digesters or bioconversion plants. Given worldwide concerns for energy generation and the growing recognition that current fuel reserves are less than previously estimated, WTE is once again ready for discussion. This time the underlying perception is of an actual shortage in resource reserves rather than distribution. While most people think of energy production in terms of large electrical power generation processes, there are other options that fall under the heading of “distributed energy resources.” These have the advantage of being localized with the ability to not only reduce trunk-line loads, but also utilize excess heat—normally wasted in centralized operations—for other purposes.
This point was underscored by Fred Rubin, assistant deputy director for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works, whose Guest Editorial in the January/February issue describing various innovative diversion initiatives throughout the US, states, “When viewed together, these developments demonstrate that the US is on the verge of revolutionizing the way solid waste is managed. For this reason, we’re excited about the prospects of conversion technologies and their role in transitioning to a more sustainable world.”
Cradle-to-Cradle Materials Management?
It is propitious that the Sierra Club’s governing board formally adopted a sweeping zero waste policy on February 23, 2008, proposing a host of specific roles for all strata of society, seeking to “… integrate social, environmental and economic outcomes.” Central to the Sierra Club’s program is its call for “extended producer responsibility” as a primary means of addressing the root causes of waste rather than current end-of-the-pipe approach to waste management. The club proposes four principles in pursuit of its goals:
- Zero waste hierarchy—Environmental management of materials and energy should adhere to this order of priority: First, reduce the use of materials and energy and the use of toxic substances to a minimum (through design for the environment); second, repair and reuse, extending the service life of materials and products; and third, recycle, conserving as much as possible of embodied value.
- Government responsibility to protect the commons—Governments at all levels are obligated to protect public health and the environment. They do this by fostering an economic system that fully values environmental and social costs and by providing public services and amenities that the market cannot or should not provide. The removal of government subsidies for the extraction of virgin materials and other subsidies for wasteful consumption are key elements of this principle.
- Producer and consumer responsibility for products—Any producer introducing products and services into commerce should design them in accordance with the zero waste hierarchy and to make returning used products for reuse, repair or recycling as easy as purchasing new products. Consumers are responsible for returning those products for reuse or recycling to services provided by producers or their agents.
- Transparency and accountability—Waste program development and operation are open and provide opportunity for input to all stakeholders. Industry is accountable to both government and consumers for environmental outcomes.
While it has yet to present its stance on nonthermal waste diversion opportunities, it seems reasonable to expect that such a far-reaching program would leave room for discussion and perhaps even acceptance of alternative technologies where genuine material markets exist.
So what’s in store for us in the year to come? You tell me … please. To facilitate dialog, we are in the process of overhauling the Web presence for all of our magazines, with rollout of the new www.mswmanagement.com set for this summer. In the meantime, please shoot your thoughts to me to email@example.com.
Author's Bio: John Trotti is the Group Editor for Forester Media.